Tag Archives: ada lovelace

Ada Lovelace portrait in woodcut style

Wednesday Geek Woman: Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer

This post was originally published at the Ada Initiative’s blog on Ada Lovelace Day.

Ada Lovelace, 1836 portrait in oil by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

Ada Lovelace, 1836 portrait in oil by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (known as Ada Lovelace) is probably a familiar figure to most of our readers. She is the world’s first computer programmer, writing the instructions to carry out a computer program on what would have been the world’s first computer if it had been built – the Analytical Engine, designed by famous inventor Charles Babbage.

Lovelace published the first computer program in a paper in 1843. It was presented as “Notes” to a previous, less complete paper on the subject which she also translated, but her “notes” were longer than the original paper and were considerable more insightful. She spent many months perfecting the paper, writing letters back and forth with Charles Babbage to check her work.

The depressing part? Some people argue that Lovelace did not write the first computer program, instead Charles Babbage wrote it for her and she took the credit. Despite ample contemporary evidence in the form of Lovelace’s letters to Babbage while she was writing the Notes, people have many arguments (often tinged with anger and contempt) for why she didn’t write or even understand the first computer program.

Arguments against Lovelace’s authorship include that Lovelace made mathematical mistakes when she was learning mathematics, Lovelace failed to correct a mathematical error introduced by a printer in a reprint of someone else’s work, Lovelace was literally insane, Lovelace had too high an opinion of herself, etc. Interestingly, these arguments are rarely used to question men’s authorship of joint works; indeed mental instability or difficult personalities sometimes seems to add to the reputation of male scientists and mathematicians (Nikola Tesla, John Nash, and Isaac Newton, to name just a few). Certainly I’ve personally never seen a single published mathematical error (actually, in her case merely failure to correct someone else’s error) used as an argument against a male scientist’s competency as a whole.

As another example of the lengths to which Lovelace’s critics will go, Charles Babbage’s biography, written long after Lovelace’s death (and after they worked on the paper) has this statement on Lovelace’s paper:

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

Ada Lovelace portrait in woodcut style

Ada Lovelace in a modern portrait by Colin Adams

People argue that “the algebraic working out” of the numbers of Bernoulli means that Babbage wrote the program to calculate the numbers of Bernoulli. Yet the paper contains an actual algebraic equation for calculating the numbers of Bernoulli – separate from the computer program – which would seem much more likely to be what Babbage is referring to.

More contemporary evidence in Lovelace’s favor includes her extrapolations of what a general purpose computer could do, which stretched far beyond Babbage’s ideas for its use (printing mathematical tables, mostly). She even proposed that computers could make music, which definitely wasn’t Babbage’s idea as he was famous for his passionate hatred of music. The Computer History Museum’s biography of Ada Lovelace says, “The idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that number could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation. Ada was the first to explicitly articulate this notion and in this she appears to have seen further than Babbage.” On balance, the evidence would suggest, if anything, that Babbage was the person who did not fully understand the computing capabilities of his invention and Lovelace had the greater knowledge.

In the end, most arguments that Lovelace did not write the first program only make sense in the context of a common assumption: in any partnership between a man and woman, the man did the important work and the woman assisted and polished. Look at Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet. Du Châtelet was a pioneer in the new discipline of physics, publishing several seminal papers in physics, a physics textbook, and a translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Voltaire and du Châtelet were long-term collaborators in the areas of physics and mathematics, working closely on many works, as well as lovers. However, Voltaire’s primary or sole authorship of many of their joint works is rarely questioned.

As one example, only Voltaire’s name appeared on a book he published, of which he later wrote, “Minerva dictated, and I wrote.” Voltaire often referred to du Châtelet as Minerva (interesting in itself as it suggests that du Châtelet was a channel for the goddess of wisdom rather than the originator of her ideas). Is there any serious contention that Voltaire was not the primary author of his publications during the time he collaborated with du Chatelet? No. Was there plenty of evidence that she contributed significantly to his published works? Yes.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing” by Joanna Russ shows the patterns in how people dismiss women’s writing: “She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art,” ad nauseum. (Substitute “computer programmer” for the last – people also argue that what Lovelace wrote wasn’t really a program, either.)

Lovelace’s current Wikipedia page reflects the effect of thousands of people arguing against giving credit to Lovelace: “[...] She is sometimes considered the world’s first computer programmer.” But what Lovelace needs is not a better Wikipedia page, but a better biography.

The most evidence-based biography, “Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers,” quotes heavily from Lovelace’s letters, but is written by someone without a deep understanding of computing. Other biographical works are written by people who appear to be heavily biased against Lovelace, often making extremely critical personal judgements and sweeping statements contradicting contemporary evidence without citing evidence to the contrary.

In 2012, we should not be denigrating women’s accomplishments in science based on specious arguments about personality, occasional errors, and collaborations with men. That’s one of the purposes of Ada Lovelace Day: to bring recognition to women who have had credit for their accomplishments stolen from them.

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I spent years building up a tolerance to linkspam (19 October, 2012)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Live long and linkspam (16 October, 2012)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Grace Hopper: Sorry I missed that. I was busy inventing the compiler.

Quick hit: WHO invented the internet?

I’m betting there’s some of you who’ll want to discuss this awful article that starts by claiming that MEN invented the internet. But rather than quote the irritating original article in this post, I’m going to quote part of this rebuttal from Xeni Jardin:

You guys, ladies suck at technology and the New York Times is ON IT.

Radia “Mother of the Internet” Perlman and the ghosts of RADM Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace and every woman who worked in technology for the past 150 years frown upon you, sir. Women may have been invisible, but the work we did laid the groundwork for more visible advancements now credited to more famous men.

“Men are credited with inventing the internet.” There. Fixed it for you.


I ragequit this article like, 10 times, and couldn’t get past that awful opening line.

Read the rest of the rebuttal on BoingBoing, or read the original article.

So, uh, yeah. Here’s a post so you can have a comment thread on the topic that is moderated by feminists.

Wednesday Geek Woman Special Edition: Google Sydney and their meeting rooms

Cross-posted in edited form from the Ada Initiative blog.

The Ada Initiative, the non-profit Valerie Aurora and I have founded to increase women’s participation in open technology and culture, is fundraising right now with our Seed 100 campaign. The aim of the campaign is twofold: to raise money for our startup phase including program development, and to demonstrate to larger sponsors the community interest. We’re in our last week and our big push to reach 100 now.

We’ve resisted posting about Seed 100 here to date, since we want GF and the Ada Initiative to stand apart, but we enjoyed this story a lot, so we’re cross-posted it as a Wednesday Geek Woman special edition, honouring both the Sydney Google Women Engineers Group themselves, and the women they’ve named their meeting rooms for!

One of our donors at the Analytical Engineer level is a consortium, the Sydney Google Women Engineers Group. We asked the members of this group to answer some interview questions and tell us a little more about themselves, the Sydney Google office, and why they donated.

Tell us more about the Google Sydney Women Engineers Group.

Photo of Alice

The Sydney Google Women Engineers group is an official network, and all of the women engineers are included. We have lunch together once a month and we have an ongoing budget for events that promote and encourage women in computing, group activities and off-sites. For example, recently we took an acrylic painting class together; for a bunch of engineering types, the opportunity to splash paint onto canvas was certainly novel!

The Google Sydney office has meeting rooms named after historical women in computing. Which women and why?

Photo of Eddy

The names of the meetings rooms are: Antonelli, Lovelace, Hopper, Spärck Jones, Liskov and Perlman. The names were chosen by the women engineers’ group by consensus, after much discussion.

  • Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper were obvious choices as some of the most well known (and hugely influential) women in the history of computing.
  • Kathleen “Kay” McNulty Mauchly Antonelli was one of the original ENIAC programmers.
  • Photo of Susannah

  • Karen Spärck Jones‘ work on information retrieval, and her invention of the Inverse Document Frequency measure in particular, is especially relevant to Google as a search company.
  • Barbara Liskov‘s well-known work in object oriented programming language theory earned her a Turing Award, John von Neumann medal and numerous other honours.
  • Finally, Radia Perlman‘s work on network design, in particular her Spanning Tree Protocol is also fundamental to our daily work.

Photo of Katie

The room names were voted on by the entire office, so we needed to promote our idea to everyone. It took the support of the whole office, men and women, for the idea to be put into place, and we’re really proud of seeing the names there today. Here is what we wrote to promote the idea:

The women in computer science’s history are too seldom celebrated, despite the fact that they have been an active part of the field since its very inception [...]. By naming our meeting rooms after the women who have helped make our field what it is today, we can make a positive statement about Google’s commitment to promoting gender equality in computer science, while paying tribute to these pioneers and reflecting the Sydney office’s openness to diversity.

In addition to being named after women in computing, each room has a picture and biography of the woman it’s named after.

Is the Ada Lovelace meeting room where your [Seed 100 donor reward] print from the Lovelace and Babbage comic will end up or do you have other plans for it?

Photo of Kendra

Yes, the Lovelace and Babbage poster will take pride of place in the Ada Lovelace meeting room once it arrives, along with the photo and bio of Ada Lovelace that is already there.

See the Ada Initiative blog for more information about the donation the Google Sydney women engineers made.

Does anyone else honour famous women geeks in this manner? Do you have meeting rooms, computers or anything else named in their honour? If you were naming your meeting rooms, which names would you use?

A real thing in the world.

If you’ve been on The Internet a while, you may have heard of Etsy before. It’s awesome, and because of this awesomeness I was browsing it today.

Today’s browsing of awesome has enlightened me to the existence of this and I just had to share it:

A screenshot of an etsy item page, displaying a white woman in a dark red satin gown wearing a leather steampunk style corset, shoulder harness, collar and wristcuff. The words "Ada Lovelace Steampunk" are highlighted.

You’re welcome.

Linkspam that differentiates me from a doormat (20th May, 2010)

  • Hollaback, the websites for fighting back against street harassment, are raising money for an iPhone app allowing posting of harassment events and harassers’ images. Find out more and donate at ihollaback.org. (Via Valerie Aurora.) They need donations by May 28 in order to get any money at all.
  • The Climate at UW-Madison: Begins Sunny and Warm, Ends Chilly: a summary of the results of interviews with nine female faculty members who left the University of Wisconsin-Madison and seven faculty members presently employed at the UW. The interviews were conducted on behalf of the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI).
  • ThinkGeek’s Heroine t-shirt series includes an Ada Lovelace tee.
  • Erika Hall writes An Open Letter to Our Industry: So, hey, there has been a renewed kerfuffle on teh Internets about who is included in speaker lists and bylines and why… Excellent… No one should feel comfortable with the current state of things. That state being seeing the same faces —of typically white, typically dudes—again, and again, and again.
  • A Woman’s Toolkit for Seeking a Raise: interesting discusion in the New York Times of much of the same stuff as Women Don't Ask covers – nice to see it in the mainstream press.
  • David Gómez-Rosado of Want magazine writes with Public thanks… And public apology: And painful because it comes from people that are 100% right and we were 100% wrong. In fact, we were left speechless with little to say in our defense other than shut up, bow our heads in dismay, and sincerely apologize. The issue at hand (pointed by several respected and celebrated professionals in the user experience community) is the total lack of presence of women in this our first issue.
  • How the sex bias prevails: transgendered scientists Ben Barres and Joan Roughgarden recount their experiences with how their perceived gender influenced their scientific careers and the differences after they transitioned.
  • Broadband makes women happy: Though men are stereotyped as gadget hounds, information technology actually brings more happiness to women worldwide.

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Ada makes the machines sing

Remember the Ubuntu Women World Play Day Competition that I posted about a while ago?

The entries have now closed and voting has opened.

If you need some inspiration to vote:

If you’re wondering what the soundtrack is, it is a free download released by The Crystalline Effect to honor Ada Lovelace for this year’s Ada Lovelace Day. I discovered it this week when searching for a track to compliment the competition montage, and have fallen somewhat in love with it.

Death by a thousand links (20th April, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

A linkspam standing on its hind legs (9th October, 2009)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.I hope it’s OK not to credit the sources individually: a large number of links here are now coming in from readers.